Taking Sam to Moscow

How does a six-year old New Yorker think of his father’s Russian home?

September 10, 2001

How does a six-year old New Yorker think of his father's Russian home?

Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” I could not help wondering what my six-year old boy, a native New Yorker, would make of it.

Would he find this environment, which is so familiar to his father, utterly alien?

How, for example, would he relate to his grandfather? My father is a product of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a period declared as a cultural and political “thaw” by Nikita S. Khrushchev after the death of Stalin.

In fact, my father was one of the poets who read their works at the Mayakovsky monument in Moscow, which gave rise to the dissident movement. Of course, all of this history was over Sam’s head — just as it is unfamiliar to Sam’s Russian contemporaries.

But I could not help noticing how my father — who in his own youth had yearned for a democratic transformation and greater openness in his country — felt out of place now that such changes were finally occuring.

My father could not even communicate directly with his grandson. This is due to the fact that he speaks only one foreign language — rudimentary German — which he picked up before World War II.

At the time, German was a far more important language in Russia than English.

Therefore, grandfather and grandson were two strangers, living in completely different worlds.

I served as their only link. But Sam was not the one who experienced the trip’s greatest surprise — his mother did.

Although my wife Andrea had accompanied me to Russia for the first time in 1988 — when the Iron Curtain began to lift — she was really taken aback by the changes that had occurred since then.

From a shabby, dusty, dreary place that had seemed frozen in the 1930s, Moscow had become a fairly decent European city — complete with elegant restaurants, plenty of stores and well-dressed inhabitants.

Andrea was shocked by GUM, the main department store. During her first trip, it was a caricature of communist shortages — empty of goods — but full of people slaughtering each other over a pair of one-size-fits-all fake-leather Yugoslav shoes.

Today, GUM not only has a new coat of paint, but houses every boutique and jewelry store found in New York, Milan and London.

One of the reasons I left Russia was because of the anti-Semitism that pervaded Soviet life then. Today, that would be hard for Sam to understand. His suburban New York school enrolls kids from over a hundred different backgrounds.

Moreover, being Jewish in Russia today is no longer a problem. But in the old days, the main synagogue was rung by Interior Ministry troops to keep people from attending religious services.

The synagogue has been nicely restored. The street that borders it has been paved with flagstones — complete with its own parking lot — which is a rarity in Moscow.

As it turns out, the parking lot was a necessity. An attendant proudly showed us personal benches engraved with the names of the richest Russian oligarchs — and some of the more notorious gangsters.

When they come to pray, they need a place to park their armored Mercedes — and for their bodyguards to hang around.

Like in the old days, there are still armed men around the temple. These days, however, they protect the people inside the synagogue — rather than prevent them from entering, as in the Soviet days.

The Soviet government was, of course, atheistic. The new Russian government is highly religious. Too much so. As a matter of fact, the greatest construction project in post-Communist Moscow has been the restoration of the enormous 19th century church Christ the Redeemer.

It was blown to pieces in the 1930s as part of an anti-religious campaign. Because the communists were unable to build anything on the swampy ground beneath the church, they turned it into a giant outdoor pool.

With post-Soviet technology being more advanced, they were able to rebuild the church. However, its style and grandeur are reminiscent of the white elephant projects of the Communist era.

Sam thought it would have been better to have kept the pool.

The Soviet Union was almost completely isolated from the outside world. The availability of Western goods and the presence of foreigners is probably the greatest change.

Of course, there is also a McDonald’s in Moscow — almost as ubiquitous as in New York. There are no McDonald’s restaurants on the Red Square yet, but one is a few hundred feet away.

The Russian menu is no different than the one in Kalamazoo, Michigan or Paris, France. However, the words are written in cyrillic. Russian customers may puzzle over the meaning of “Tchikin Maknaggets” or “Kaoontry Sendvitch”.

But Sam blithely ordered a Happy Meal — and got everything he expected, complete with a plastic toy. There were two other U.S.-related experiences, too.

Sam was missing fellow Americans — so he approached anybody who spoke English.

This is how we met a Midwestern family at a Moscow restaurant. Mom, Dad and two boys were on their way to the Sakhalin Island, where Dad is working for Royal Shell, an Anglo-Dutch company.

They were about to travel 6,000 miles, which is the equivalent of crossing the United States — twice.

Sam also got excited by the prospect that he could view Lenin’s body in the Red Square Mausoleum. He immediately declared his intent to visit the mummy.

After a moment of understandable hesitation, we consented — after all, where else would he see something like that?

Our fears about the psychological impact of the sight proved groundless. Sam was convinced the body was plastic. As to the political effect, I took advantage of the visit to inoculate a few anti-Communist ideas.

To make it more understandable, I explained that the United States had fought Lenin and his regime long and hard and in the end, won.

“If he is one of the bad guys, how come they still keep him here?” asked Sam.

Frankly, that’s a question I also wonder about.